Whoever said turtles were slow clearly never met Gina the green sea turtle.
Between February 1 and February 22, Gina, a juvenile sea turtle originally captured in Cocos Island Marine National Park in 2011 by a combined team of Turtle Island-PRETOMA researchers, traveled 310 miles—or roughly 15 miles per day—to seek refuge in the Golfo Dulce of Costa Rica.
But even more important than her impressive journey was her destination. Gina is among the first sea turtles to be detected in both Cocos Island and Golfo Dulce, establishing potential biological connectivity between these two marine habitats.
“Gina’s recent migration to the Golfo Dulce is exciting, as it connects not only Costa Rican marine foraging sites, it also provides evidence of transpacific connectivity of marine turtle habitats,” explained Maike Haidemeyer of PRETOMA, a Costa Rican sea turtle conservation organization.
According to genetic analysis, Gina originally comes from the Western Pacific, but has been living in Cocos Islands for the last few years. In 2014, a team of Turtle Island-PRETOMA researchers attached an acoustic transmitter tag to the turtle to track her movements. But it wasn’t until this February that researchers from the Costa Rican organization Misión Tiburón detected Gina while studying the movements of sharks in Cocos Island and Golfo Dulce using the same acoustic technology.
Although other green turtles equipped with satellite transmitters in Cocos Island National Park have been tracked migrating towards of the coast of Central America before, Gina is the first to be detected in another feeding ground and her travels clearly connect Cocos Island’s oceanic habitats with coastal ecosystems.
This finding, scientists say, has strong implications for national marine spatial planning, as well as the definition of regional marine conservation policy.
“Our mission is to use this scientific data to understand sea turtles’ migratory routes and then advocate for protected swim ways to ensure these endangered species are not victims of industrial fishing practices like longlining,” said Todd Steiner, ecologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network.
Green turtles, like Gina, are listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and are an Appendix I species under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species and Convention of Migratory Species.
In Costa Rica, the capture and commercialization of green turtle products is strictly banned by national legislation—but the construction of a mega sports fishing marina in the Golfo Dulce threatens to interrupt or alter the migratory route green turtles must follow when heading toward their feeding grounds in nearby sea grass pastures.
“A common trait among highly migratory species is that they spend part of their life cycles in these critical coastal habitats, where they are subject to a series of anthropogenic threats such as fisheries, pollution and the destruction of habitat,” said Ilena Zanelo of Misión Tiburón. “This information, which is generated as a result of interinstitutional efforts and coordination, is valuable for the establishment of effective marine conservation policy in the framework of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor.”
Though Gina’s journey is certainly remarkable, but she’s not the first green sea turtle to travel such great lengths. In October 2014, a 117-pound, male Pacific green sea turtle called ‘Sanjay’ made a historical migration from Cocos Island National Marine Park to Ecuador’s Galapagos National Park, traveling some 400 miles by journey’s end. His trip made him the first sea turtle to corroborate genetic data suggesting many resident sea turtles at Cocos Island were born on the nesting beaches of the Galapagos Islands.